Acamedic Profile: A/Prof Mike Manefield

A researcher, teacher, inventor, collaborator, entrepreneur and author of children’s books on the environment, Associate Professor Michael Manefield holds a continuing appointment between the Schools of Chemical Engineering and Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW.

Through his expertise in microbiology, environmental biotechnology and ecosystem engineering Manefield strives to extend the research and knowledge base through academic work and this knowledge of microorganisms is being applied to solve environmental and industrial problems in bioremediation and biogas generation.

He grew up on various properties in country NSW and credits his parents (both teachers) as the inspiration for his curiosity and pursuit of knowledge.  “I've always been curious to know how things worked and very curious as to how animals worked from the inside” Manefield says.  

Researchers have to facilitate application through relationships with industry to affect positive change. Nobody else will do it

Associate Professor Michael Manefield

Manefield confesses to be an individual who marches to the beat of a different drum.  “Years ago, my parents gave me a poster with a picture of a photo of this massive rock spire - this guy standing on top of it. It said down the bottom “I'm not an ordinary person” and I don't know if I took that to heart, if it was predictive or if it was just something that they’d observed of me. But I've always been more tempted to do unusual things I think than follow the norm.”

Armed with this philosophy, his approach is to “….motivate people by encouragement; for them to think outside the box. I encourage people to go their way and to try things, no matter how crazy an idea might seem.”  

After completing his PhD at UNSW in 2000, Manefield left Australia. “It is a rite of passage for an Australian researcher to go overseas and spend a year or two as a postdoc in a laboratory.”  He enjoyed stints at Oxford and Cambridge (UK), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Kamaichi (Japan) where he observed and interacted with “…..a lot of really brilliant people and tried to absorb as much of their genius as I possibly could, to learn how they were doing things, what they were motivated by, what they were interested in. So that had a big influence as well.”   

It was in the UK that Manefield experienced his first interaction with industry. “My job was to identify phenol degrading bacteria in a waste water treatment plant that was treating coking effluent from steel manufacturing. I spent lots of time taking samples and then using the commercial partner’s lab to set up experiments because they had to be done with fresh sludge.”

At an important stage of the experiment and with time pressures to deliver results, Manefield and his colleagues needed to vacate the laboratory. “We had to restart the experiment. So we took this whole experiment and set it up in a cupboard in a B&B. We set an alarm and took turns during the night to take samples with this thing bubbling away. This was my first industry interaction. Lesson: Innovate.” (Note: Manefield does not recommend that anyone should try this method at home or in a B&B!).   

He returned to UNSW in 2004.

Manefield believes that developing relationships with industry is crucial. “Ideas are great. To make them work you have to take on society as a whole - academia, industry, government and community. Researchers have to facilitate application through relationships with industry to affect positive change. Nobody else will do it.” Associate Professor Michael Manefield working on the field

John Giltrap, Managing Director of Enretech is into his third bioremediation research project with Manefield. “From my very first meeting with Mike about three years ago, I was impressed that here was somebody who had a real intent to do research and actually commercialize it.  In subsequent meetings, I learned that he had incubated a small company at the University.  As time went on we realized there were common interests in the commercialization of Mike’s work.”   

To this end, Manefield says: “Enretech Australasia has become a vehicle for commercialising our research and expertise.”

Giltrap says he is pleased to have formed the company “Novorem” (Novo – New; Rem – Remediation) a joint venture between Enretech and Micronovo (the company Manefield established), which will “…continue with the research and discovery of new technologies that we could market jointly.”  Giltrap continues, “While it is early days for Novorem, we are seeing positive cash flow.  We also see very lucrative opportunities for Novorem in the remediation of crude oil sludges which are very difficult to degrade and dispose of particularly in view of environmental legislation.“  Giltrap estimates the problem to be in the billions of dollars globally. “Mike’s research and technologies are the key elements to moving forward.”

“I follow Novorem very closely” Manefield says.  “I have former students who are full time employed there which is nice. In addition, as a consequence of our research and commercialisation, the Australian remediation community now considers biological remediation as a viable option. It’s a great option for remediating contaminated sites because it's very low energy and low cost. You’re basically trying to encourage the microorganisms to play their role as the liver of the planet.”

Share this